Historical Context of European Colonization in the Caribbean
Colonialism is defined as the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. European colonialism begins with the Spanish arrival in the Caribbean in 1492. Upon their arrival, the Spanish encountered the indigenous Taino population. The Taino population had developed their own economic, political, agricultural, and social systems through which they were able to permanently settle in what was known as Guanahani prior to Spanish arrival. Spanish settlers initially planned to land in eastern Asia in anticipation of great natural resources through which they intended to export back to Spain for the purpose of profit. Although, this anticipation did not change once they instead arrived in Guanahani. The Spanish were drawn to the possibilities of gold and with brutal force colonized and renamed this region Hispaniola. This was done through the killing, removing, and enslaving of the indigenous Taino population (Higman 2011: pg. 77). In addition, Spanish arrival brought foreign diseases which aided in the deaths of large numbers of the indigenous population. Due to these conditions, the Taino population had depleted to only a few hundred by the year 1570. The ultimate outcome however, was genocide.
The Spanish continued this brutal expansion focusing mainly on the surrounding islands with the colonization of Puerto Rico in 1508, Jamaica in 1509, and Cuba in 1511 (Higman 2011; pg. 69). It was not until after these areas were colonized that the Spanish moved on to the main lands of the Caribbean with Puerto Rico acting as their eastern frontier. Spain’s expansion throughout the Caribbean would soon get the attention of the remaining European world powers. The Dutch, French, and the English began to take notice in the way that Spain’s Caribbean territories were conveniently positioned in the system of the Atlantic Trade winds, which made maritime travel significantly easier. The Spanish defended and held on to their most strategic elements of the Caribbean while easily surrendering areas that seemed unprofitable or were too costly to defend. In 1697, Spain surrendered the western third of Hispaniola to France and the French began to settle the island focusing solely on agricultural development (Higman 2011; pg. 110). This gives way to the structural implementation of the plantation society.
The Plantation Economy
The French colonization of Saint Domingue begins with the start of the sugar revolution and the emergence of the plantation economy. A plantation society is one that focuses largely on the production of a single crop. This crop is then commodified and sold in the world market as way to make a profit. This society is characterized by the shift from small farms to large plantation, massive settlement, and the exploitation of slave labor (Higman 2011; Pg. 98). The structure of this society would permit massive economic, political, and social enhancements for European settlers. In this description of the plantation economy, the appeal behind settling a plantation society is made apparent. Higman even goes on to argue in his chapter titled “Plantation Peoples” that the benefits produced by the plantation economy are linked to the increase in European interest in Caribbean territory, the increase in Atlantic trade in goods and slaves, and the increase of the supply in capital that would spark the industrial revolution. This means that Europeans understood the great wealth that could be gained here, which is why this form of economy became so popular in other parts of the world as well.
The implementation of sugar plantations has had extremely harsh effects on the African population of Saint Dominigue. Slaves were assigned to specific tasks in which they were expected to produce positive results or face severe punishment. The labor performed by slaves was overseen by a European slave owner who would whip anyone who was seen as inefficiently performing his or her assigned task. This included children as young as age five with no specific final age for labor. Slaves worked from dusk till dawn, burning and cutting down the forest to make room for sugar cane. Entire fields were dug by slaves using hand tools such as axes and hoes (Higman 2011; Pg. 125). Due to the severity of the labor, this process of establishing sugar cane fields produced the highest slave mortality rates. According to scholar Eric Williams “The worst hell on earth in 1789 Saint Domingue was absorbing 40,000 slaves per year” (Williams 1970: Pg. 245). It is understood that the harsh conditions of the sugar cane plantation ultimately resulted in the slave revolution as a way to abolish the inhuman conditions of slavery.
The Haitian revolution and ultimately Haiti’s declaration of independence from the French, can be understood as the start of the political, economic, and global struggle of Haiti. The former French revolution began to cause conflict within the French government over commercial autonomy and political representation in the French assembly (Ramsaran 2016: Rebellion and Revolution PowerPoint). The interests of the population of Saint Dominuge were exclusive to race and class. The Grand Blancs, wealthy white planters, argued for representation in the national assembly. The Petite Blancs, poor whites, demanded rights to economic growth, but maintained a view of white superiority over free blacks/mulattos, and slaves. Free Blacks/mulattos also demanded equal opportunity for economic stability, as well as equal representation in the French government. African Slaves simply demanded the complete abolishment of slavery in St. Domingue and the attainment of basic human rights. This unrest within the population gave way to the slave revolt that started the Haitian revolution. African slaves rallied together and through violent rebellion overthrew the plantation land owners. Once the demands of the slaves were met several other European countries began to invade Haiti. In order to combat these invasions, Toussaint Louverture temporarily pledged allegiance to the French (Williams 1970: Pg. 252). Although once Haiti was free from invasion, the newly imposed French assembly tried to push for the reestablishment of slavery in Haiti. The former slaves of Haiti refused and called for the execution of all remaining French settlers in Haiti. In response to this, Haiti gained its independence in 1825.